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340                                                                                                     B. POLEVOI
"So do I," he answered with a genial smile.
"And Struchkov, where is he now?"
"I don't know. The last letter I had from him was in
the winter, from somewhere near Velikiye Luki."
"And that tankman, what's his name?"
"You mean Grisha Gvozdev? He's a major now. He
took part in the famous battle at Prokhorovka, and later
in the tank break-through in the Kursk Salient. We were
in action in the same area, but we did not meet. He is in
command of a tank regiment. He hasn't written for some
time now, I don't know why. But never mind. We'll find
each other if we live through the war. But, then, why
shouldn't we___Well, now! Let's get some sleep! The
night's gone!"
He blew out the light and the dugout was immersed in
semi-darkness; in the dim, grey light of the frowning
dawn we could hear the droning of mosquitoes, which
perhaps, were the only inconvenience in this splendid
habitation in the woods.
"I would very much like to write about you in the
Pravda" I said.
"That's up to you to decide," answered the airman
with no particular enthusiasm. And then, very sleepily, he
added: "But perhaps you'd better not. Goebbels will get
hold of the story and trumpet all over the world that the
Russians are compelling footless men to fight, and that
sort of thing.... You know what those fascists are."
A moment later he was snoring lustily. But I could not
sleep. The simplicity and grandeur of this confession had
thrilled me. It might have been a beautiful fable were
not the hero of the story sleeping right opposite me and
his artificial feet lying on the ground glistening with
moisture and distinctly visible in the grey light of dawn.
I did not meet Alexei Maresyev for a long time after
that, but wherever the tide of war carried me I had with
me the two school exercise books in which near Orel I
had recorded the remarkable odyssey of this airman. How
many times during the war, during the lull and after,
when travelling through the countries of liberated Europe,
did I start writing my story about him, but put it aside
because all that I succeeded in writing seemed but a pale
shadow of his real life!